Sucheta Dalal :Bajaj Auto: Will history repeat itself time and again?
Sucheta Dalal

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Bajaj Auto: Will history repeat itself time and again?  

December 14, 2009


‘Hamara Bajaj’ is a slogan that clearly evokes a lot of nostalgia—even though the long waiting lists for Bajaj scooters also throws us back to the days of shortages, waiting lists and black market premiums for what was, for decades, one of the most prized possessions of a
middle-class Indian family.
Naturally, Bajaj Auto’s decision to exit the scooter business has triggered a wave of nostalgia. But things change. The economy has moved on, shortages have disappeared and there is a new generation in charge of decision-making at Bajaj, which is keener on the motorcycle segment rather than scooters.
"We will exit the scooter market because we don't see much sense in it. If we are to be a motorcycle specialist, we cannot make scooters,” Bajaj Auto’s managing director Rajiv Bajaj told reporters in New Delhi at the launch of its 135-cc ‘Pulsar’ that is being targeted at the mass-market audience. The company had not focussed on technology for this segment either, unlike Honda, which continues to do well in this very segment.
According to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), Bajaj Auto sold only 154 units of its ‘Kristal’ scooter in November 2009 and exported 104 units. Its total domestic scooter sales during the April-November period were 3,356 units and it sold 728 units overseas.
In the same period, Honda Motorcycle & Scooter India Pvt Ltd (HMSI), the unit of Japanese Honda Motor Co Ltd, sold 68,269 scooters in November. HMSI recovered its 54% market share which had eroded due to problems at the suppliers’ end and a labour strike that resulted in an order backlog of about 1.4 lakh units. Even today, there is a waiting period of three-four months for delivery of Honda's scooter brands like ‘Activa’, ‘Aviator’ and ‘Dio’.
While Honda is the undisputed market leader in scooters, even recent entrants like Mahindra Two Wheelers Ltd (MTWL), are selling scooters like hot cakes. In November, MTWL sold 7,020 scooters. Last year, HMSI sold about 11 lakh units and is aiming to increase its production to 15 lakh units per annum with the help of a third assembly line.
So, when Mr Bajaj says that he doesn’t see much sense in the scooter business, the data from SIAM and the auto industry of scooter sales says that the segment itself is booming for other manufacturers. 
One of the problems is that while all scooter makers have launched products based on fresh R&D and improved features (such as auto gears), performance and mileage, Bajaj did not bother to make much of an effort on this front. The company continued with its iconic (but now defunct) geared scooters. Although Bajaj does sell the 100-cc gearless 'Kristal', its other features are hardly on par with what the competition has to offer. 
In effect, the scooter segment of Bajaj seems to have died an unnatural and untimely death mainly due to lack of support from the family. But looking at the company's—especially Mr Rajiv Bajaj's stance in the past—I wonder if it will start making and selling scooters again.
After all, not so long ago, Bajaj did an about-turn on its decision to exit from the 100-cc motorcycle segment after failing to catch up with market leader Hero Honda, after the success of Bajaj's higher-end models like the ‘Pulsar’. In July 2009, Bajaj re-entered the 100cc motorcycle segment with a better product in its 'Discover'.
Hero Honda rules the market for the sub-125cc category with a share of 82.3%, while Bajaj and TVS Motor Co Ltd stand a distant second and third place with a market share of merely 8.4% and 8.1%, respectively.
India's market is divided roughly into two categories, urban and rural, depending on the needs and resources of consumers in these areas. For example, pricing and fuel efficiency matters most for rural consumers whereas the urban consumer would prefer more power and style in a motorcycle.
In an effort to capture the younger, tech-savvy urban consumer market, Bajaj ignored the rural market and had not launched any new variant in the 100-cc segment since the past two years. These 100-cc motorcycles offer a better mileage at a lower cost compared with motorcycles in the above 100-cc categories. These motorcycles are preferred in rural areas.
The question is, did Bajaj pay a huge price for ignoring the rural market? Looking at the sales and market share figures, it seems to be the case. So the re-entry of Bajaj into the 100-cc category was an event bound to happen. The result? With the launch of the 100-cc motorcycle, Bajaj Auto was able to significantly improve its market share to 27% from 21% in August. 
The same case plays out in the three-wheeler segment. This segment has been the mainstay for Bajaj over the years. But it was also treated in the same way as the scooter segment and the company has been paying a huge price for it. Sensing an opportunity, other smart automakers, like Tata Motors Ltd, Piaggio Vehicles Pvt Ltd, TVS Motors and Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd (M&M) entered the light commercial vehicle (LCV) market.
In a game-changing move, instead of competing with Bajaj in the three-wheeler segment, Tata Motors, the country’s largest vehicle maker, came out with a complete new category—the
mini-truck segment—which became an instant hit.
The launch of ‘Ace’ saw an overall dip in three-wheeler commercial vehicle sales with Bajaj taking the maximum hit. It was also multiplied by the fact that Bajaj offers just one variant, ‘GC Max’ in this segment, while others like M&M have two variants, ‘Champion’ and ‘Alfa’. Following Tata’s success with ‘Ace’, Piaggio also entered the mini-truck segment with its ‘Ape’ truck.
In its bid to counter the growing influence of the mini-truck segment, Bajaj said in January 2008 that it would enter the LCV segment. The company said that it would manufacture its LCVs at its Chakan-based facility near Pune. However, no concrete steps have been taken by Bajaj, so far, and there is no word from the company on the proposal.
In August, Bajaj said that it would launch four new variants of its three-wheelers in the passenger and commercial vehicle segment, over the next six months.
In the three-wheeler passenger carrier (popularly known as the auto-rickshaw) segment, during November, Bajaj and Piaggio were able to register an increase of 61.3% and 68% in sales, respectively. M&M and TVS Motors clocked a growth of 133% and 211%, respectively. The rising sales of competitors are sounding the alarm bells for Bajaj, as vehicles from both M&M and TVS Motors offer better features and performance than Bajaj's auto-rickshaws.
It remains to be seen what kind of product mix will Bajaj come up with, to counter and sustain competition in the motorcycle, three-wheeler and last but not the least, the scooter segment.
— Yogesh Sapkale

-- Sucheta Dalal